"We question the state's role in defining and controlling the morality of its citizens and its use of punitive religious and municipal laws," said a statement by 50 rights and women's groups.

 

"Forced and fearful compliance with such laws results not in a more moral society but a mass of terrified, submissive and hypocritical subjects," said the statement, which also bears more than 200 names of individuals, including journalists and members of parliament.

 

The statement highlighted incidents such as a recent raid on a nightclub in the capital, the detention of about 100 Muslim patrons by religious officials, and the arrest of a non-Muslim couple for holding hands in a public park two years ago.

 

The incidents created an outcry in Malaysia where 60% of the population of 25 million are Muslims, and there are large non-Muslim minorities.

 

Action needed

 

Arutchelvan Subramaniam, spokesperson for Suaram, an independent Malaysian human rights group and one of the main groups behind the statement, told Aljazeera.net: "When the state uses moral issues to violate the human rights of individuals that is when action needs to be taken.

 

"These violations have been going on for a number of years, but lately a lot of religious officers have been more outrageous in carrying out their duties … for example arresting people holding hands in the streets, or people - mainly Muslims - found in a pub, even though they may not have been drinking alcohol."

 

Subramaniam said he thought Malaysia needed to adhere to the United Nations Human Rights Declaration rather than the moral police taking a "very narrow interpretation of Sharia Law."

 

Unreported

 

"In the past, many similar incidents went unreported because those who were charged pleaded guilty without legal representation for fear of the shame and discrimination of a prolonged public trial," said the statement, which was signed by both Muslims and non-Muslims.

 

"It is clear that public opinion has changed, and that laws must be changed to reflect our increasingly open and progressive society"

Statement by Malaysian rights groups

"It is clear that public opinion has changed, and that laws must be changed to reflect our increasingly open and progressive society.

 

"Given the multi-religious and multi-ethnic composition of our society, any attempt to regulate a person's conscience, faith or private life has grave implications for all citizens and communities," it said.

 

Violations

 

The use of Muslim youths to spy on other Muslims as proposed and implemented in southern Malacca state "violates not only Quranic injunctions but also common standards of community trust," it said.

 

"We are against the use of these state instruments, and the individuals and groups enlisted as their surrogates, to regulate morality. How people dress and where, how and with whom they socialise are personal choices."

 

The groups called on the government to repeal "provisions in religious and municipal laws that deny citizens their fundamental right to privacy, freedom of speech and expression" and those that overlap with the federal penal code.